“It was amazing in the beginning,” Palmer recalls of the days prior to ELP, when he was playing in Crazy World of Arthur Brown. “I was just a kid, and I landed in the USA in 1968 with a number one record. We were going great guns, and then Arthur decided to join a hippie cult in Long Island." Fortunately, Palmer’s career recovered quickly. He and Brown’s keyboard player Vincent Crane reconvened as Atomic Rooster before getting a call to join Emerson, previously the frontman of the band Nice, and Greg Lake, formerly with King Crimson.
“They were looking at a lot of different drummers, including Mitch Mitchell, who later became a member of the Jimi Hendrix Experience,” Palmer says. “I was recommended by Tony Stratton-Smith, who was Emerson’s manager at the time. I was in Atomic Rooster, and I didn’t want to join Keith and Greg at first. We had a jam session and that was pretty good, but I still wasn’t convinced. Eventually they convinced me the music would be something special, and I decided to join up."
Labelled as a supergroup because of the members’ previous credentials, ELP quickly took off thanks to their blend of bombastic rock, classical conceits, and a progressive posture. “It was instant success after we did the Isle of Wight Festival,” Palmer remembers. “The press labelled it as our premiere, although it was actually our second show. We were dubbed a supergroup, which is both a blessing and a curse. The bar was set very high, but we only had a couple of weeks to put the first album together."
Expectations continued to run high, and the band was forced to continually prove they were worthy of the nods. The supergroup tag hounded them from the beginning, but Palmer shrugs off any suggestion that they weren’t up to the challenge. “It opened a lot of doors in the beginning, but it made it difficult if the music was not universally accepted,” he says. “With critics, we became a moving target... In the end, we each had an easier time working outside of ELP because people knew our names.”
Despite public perception, the musicians' efforts outside ELP weren’t intended to signal the end of the band. “We never broke up,” Palmer maintains. “We just got tired. By 1980 we had been going nonstop and we were exhausted. The break was intended to be a few years, but then I got Asia going and Greg was doing a solo career, and Keith did some movie soundtracks."
These days, Palmer says he hasn’t spoken to Lake except by email. He was shocked when he received word of Emerson’s death on the way to a show in Italy. “It was a shock to all of us,” he reflects. “I still can’t believe he is gone. He was the best musician I ever worked with.”
Palmer’s South Florida performance will be the only show of the tour that will include special guests Steve Hackett of Genesis and Mark Stein of Vanilla Fudge. It will also include an appearance by the Center for Contemporary Dance Ensemble. Even so, Emerson is the one it’s all about. “My band is committed to keeping the musical legacy of ELP alive,” Palmer says proudly. “The set list includes the music Keith was particularly fond of.”
Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy Celebration. 8 p.m. Friday, June 24, at the Olympia Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami; 305-374-2444; olympiatheater.org. Tickets cost $35 to $130 via olympiatheater.org.